Telephone misuse charge filed in Maryland 'joker' case

  • Neil Prescott allegedly threatened co-workers at Pitney Bowes Company. Police found many weapons in his apartment.
Neil Prescott allegedly threatened co-workers at Pitney Bowes… (Prince George's County…)
August 01, 2012|By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun

The Crofton man who police have said called himself "a joker" while threatening a workplace shooting has been charged with a single misdemeanor count of misusing the telephone, authorities said Wednesday.

Police drew national headlines when they announced that Neil Edwin Prescott was in custody, saying they had thwarted a "violent episode" with links to a mass shooting in Aurora, Colo. But on Wednesday, prosecutors found themselves explaining the relatively minor charge as Prescott's friends criticized the handling of the case.

Prince George's County State's Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks said that she believed the telephone offense was "insufficient" but that the evidence against Prescott, 28, was not enough to charge him with more serious crimes. She said he legally owns the two dozen firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition seized from his home Friday.

Alsobrooks continued to describe the police raid as "averting what could have been — we believe — a massive loss of life" at a Capitol Heights office of mail services supplier Pitney Bowes.

The raid on Prescott's home was triggered by a complaint from his former boss, who told police Prescott threatened to "load my guns and blow everybody up." Authorities have said Prescott was in the process of being fired, and a Pitney Bowes spokeswoman said he had worked for a subcontractor.

"I believe that when people like Mr. Prescott threaten violence — especially in this day and age — they ought to face felony charges," Alsobrooks said, adding that she planned to lobby the Maryland General Assembly for a law against making threats over the phone.

Defense attorney William C. Brennan, Jr., who is representing Prescott, said he would have no comment on the case before trial. The charge carries a maximum of three years in prison and a $500 fine.

A man who said he's been friends with Prescott for a decade said the absence of serious charges suggests that there's no evidence Prescott planned to carry out a shooting plot.

"Instead of admitting that Neil didn't have the intent to commit any mass shooting as they had originally claimed, the [prosecutor] stated that she was angry that she couldn't find some way to charge him with a more serious crime," Mike Cochran wrote in an email.

Prescott was taken into custody for a psychological evaluation Friday. He remains voluntarily in the care of mental heath experts, Alsobrooks said.

"We're not walking away from this individual by any means," Prince George's County Police Chief A. Magaw said at a news conference. "He'll have a lot of things to answer for when he leaves the hospital."

After the raid on Prescott's Crofton apartment last week, authorities said they believed the threats were a reference to the massacre that killed 12 and injured 58 others in an Aurora movie theater during a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises."

The misdemeanor charge against Prescott — and the promise by prosecutors to try to craft new laws — drew observations from defense attorneys that perhaps prosecutors had trouble finding evidence that Prescott intended to act on the alleged threats.

"If he is charged with only misdemeanor telephone use, the facts don't add up to a major criminal violation," Glen Burnie criminal defense attorney David W. Fischer said. He is not involved with the case.

"They were looking at what happened in Colorado, and they don't want that on their head," Fischer said of prosecutors. "They may want to send a message that what you did was serious and we take threats seriously."

The public accusations made against Prescott can continue to follow him, even if he's found not guilty, said Atlanta attorney Watson Bryant, who represented security guard Richard Jewell. Jewell was falsely implicated in the 1996 bombing of the Atlanta Olympics.

"People still think he was involved with it because he was smeared from the beginning," said Bryant, who has no connection to the Prescott case.

The telephone charge against Prescott makes it seem that prosecutors "probably got no damn case at all," Bryant said. "What they're doing is they're charging him with the only misdemeanor they can find."

Still, Bryant said, police have a responsibility to address threats. "I don't think even a veiled threat shouldn't be taken seriously, especially with the mass shootings that have gone on."

Alsobrooks, the Prince George's prosecutor, said her office and police could not find enough evidence to support charging Prescott with second-degree assault.

She added that Prescott will not have access to the seized weapons before trial. If convicted and sentenced to at least two years in prison — or if a mental health evaluation reveals an illness — Prescott would not have legal access to weapons indefinitely, she said.

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